The $349 Ricoh Theta S is a field-proven 360 camera. It's design gives humans a reasonable way to hold it and trigger its shutter button. It's decently fast, and outputs well-stitched equirectangular still images at just under 14 megapixels. The improvements over previous versions of the Theta are huge, and the Theta S is the first of the Thetas to hits the image quality bar for 360 stills. Because Thetas were so early in the market, there is also decent third-party app support. My favorite add-on is the $3.99 Theta S Remote, an app for iOS which adds manual exposure control, long-exposure support, and support for eliminating the cute little shutter sound. The Theta S includes 8GB of internal memory, which is unfortunate, but there are instructions online about how to replace the internal 8GB microSD card with a larger one (at your own risk, obviously).
Although the Ricoh Theta S takes decent still images, it shoots video at 1080p, which is not high really enough resolution to be usable for 360 video. The resulting videos are fine when displayed in a small window, but do not hold up when viewed full screen or in VR headsets.
If $349 is too much to spend on a 360 camera, check out the LG 360 Cam, which looks like a short Theta S and costs $199.99.
The LG 360 Cam lives in a hard case that doubles as a handle extension, and is very similar to the Theta in operation. Stills are 16 megapixels and are similar in quality to those captured by the Theta S, and video is slightly better (higher resolution, with visible improvements). I don't have extensive experience with this camera, but after using one for a bit, it seems like a nice product, especially such a lower price point. Anecdotally, some folks have had uneven experiences with stitching quality, but even if it doesn't stitch quite as well as the Theta S, it's so much cheaper that it might be worth the tradeoff. The Theta S has the edge in software and ecosystem support, but if you're just looking to snap 360 stills and video, it's hard to argue for the Theta S over the LG 360 CAM.
If you're mostly interested in shooting 360 video, it's likely that your only real choice (in the short term) for casual shooting will be the $400 Samsung Gear 360, which has been released in some Asian countries, but not yet in the United States (although you can purchase it on a variety of websites including Amazon, albeit without a warranty). Also note that the Samsung Gear 360 might only work with Samsung smartphones. No official reviews are out yet, so I could wait on purchasing this camera until more information is available.
The Samsung Gear 360 shoots 360 video at 3840 x 1920 (I have been abbreviating this as "4K" even though it technically is just short of UHD). This is probably the minimum useful resolution for 360 video. Stills are recorded at 30 megapixels, which is a huge bump from the Theta S and LG 360 Cam, but I think we need to see side by side comparisons to gauge just how much better it really is, since output resolution can certainly be increased without actually improving quality. Triggering the camera as a standalone affair (without a smartphone) can be challenging to do one-handed because you have to push a button on top of the camera, which triggers the start of a short timer. Also, because of the Gear 360's spherical shape, it doesn't really fit well into a pocket—it's definitely less portable than are the Ricoh Theta S and LG 360 Cam. For stills, there might be usability problems because the Samsung wants you to use a smartphone to do stitching instead of doing it in-camera. Still, the video output should be much better than the other options, and a lot of people are looking forward to the official availability of the camera. As I mentioned above, I recommend waiting to read official reviews before purchasing the Gear 360. We still don't know how good the stitching will be.
Obviously, you can build your own multi-camera 360 rig if you understand end-to-end stitching and sharing workflow. It is possible to get much better 360 photos from such a rig, as well as much higher-resolution video, but because most consumer cameras can't sync their shutters, only very high-end custom rigs end up being able to capture usable 360 video.
Finally, I very frequently use one of two tripods to support my small 360 cameras. For these cameras, you will need tripods that have small heads so they minimize what is captured by the camera. I most commonly use 2 tripods that have an emphasis on portability for travel.
- The Tamrac TR406 ZipShot Compact Ultra-Light Instant Tripod (Big version), which is super light and extends to 44" tall (it looks like it's very hard to get, now). It uses shock cords and tubes that snap into place when unleashed.
- The $80 Promaster LS-CT Compact Travel Light Stand, which is much sturdier, extends to 75.5" tall and is 16" when folded and collapsed.
Tripods and light stands are great, but I also find myself frequently using small objects to elevate 360 cameras above tables. If you find yourself in need, look around for any narrow-ish object with a flat top. I sometimes use an overturned glass or cup when I'm out at a meal with friends, and even though the base is often so large that it can be seen in the frame, it's better than getting one of the close classic "finger-snapping" pictures that includes a deformed hand and fingers at the bottom of the picture!
OK, that's enough for now. The most important thing is to get ahold of a 360-ready camera so you can start experimenting as soon as possible. This space will change extremely quickly, and it's likely that new cameras will be out every few months, especially as crowdfunded and pre-ordered 360 cameras start to actually become available.
Disclaimer: I work at Facebook on immersive media. The opinions in this article are mine only and do not represent the views of the company.